The Jesus Prayer - a reflection

Deepening Spirituality
Prayer
Reflection
Image of a person holding a small crucifix in their hands
Author
John Schofield

John Schofield is a former Chair of St Mark's CRC, and past Principal of an Anglican Ministry Training Scheme.

 

In the reading I do to support and try to develop my spiritual life, I keep coming across the ancient prayer known as the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. This prayer has been and is of immense importance, not just to me, but to millions of other Christians across space and time.

I am saddened when people say to me that Christianity hasn’t got what they call a mystical tradition, and so can’t meet the needs of those who seek the spiritual depths.

Of course, mysticism means many different things to many different people, but at the heart of it is always the search for God, for the ‘Beyond’, a response to God’s love (for the Christian, God’s love revealed in Jesus the Christ). It encompasses meditation and contemplation, a movement beyond symbols and words. But it is also a waiting, perhaps in what seems like darkness, for God to reveal Godself to us. God is in the familiar, but also in the unfamiliar, beyond what we’re used to, beyond our comfort zone, beyond what we can explain or understand. The lives and writings of those we call ‘mystics’ try to explore all this and encourage them in their search, though always bearing in mind St Augustine’s warning that ‘If you comprehend it, it is not God’.

We probably only have ourselves to blame for the ignorance of this strand of Christian life and prayer. In most churches we have never really introduced people to the riches of Christian spirituality, to the mystical traditions of England, France, Germany and Spain – to name just four mainstream and yet divergent European countries.

I remember being startled during the 1980s to find a copy of Martin Thornton’s classic book “English Spirituality” in the surplus book sale at a branch library in Luton. But the spirituality stemming from Gilbert of Sempringham, Richard Rolle, Dame Julian of Norwich and the Cloud of Unknowing simply couldn’t keep this book on the library shelf despite the huge spiritual hankering that is expressed in all around us in so many forms.

This is expressed in many ways from the Hare Krishna people chanting their way up and down Oxford Street in the 1970s and 80s to the vogue for Indian gurus. In its own way, it is behind much of what is called ‘New Age’ spirituality, or the return to paganism. Why, I wonder, do people go off in these directions, when so much of what they seek is to be found with the neglected treasures of the Christian tradition?

The Jesus prayer offers one way into the search for God that is available at any time and in any place. Perhaps it has its origins in this encounter which Mark records in his Gospel.

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ 1                                                              

Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me.

That simple cry from Bartimaeus’s heart developed in the Greek church, and even more in the Russian church, into a great and simple prayer, which, for those who want a Christian mantra, is all that we will ever need.

Though the classic form of this prayer is: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me a sinner’, there is also a shorter version: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.’ Kalistos Ware comments: ‘around these few words, many over the centuries have built their spiritual life, and through this one prayer have entered into the deepest mysteries of Christian knowledge.’ 2

Now while it is true that, as Rowan Williams has observed, ‘God always has to be heard or seen where there aren’t yet words for him’ yet it is also true that the use of the Jesus prayer can take us beyond words into a deeper being-with-God.

It is a prayer that I use many times in all sorts of different ways. I use it as a preparation for worship. I say it in the silence I observe between the invitation to confession and our actually saying the confession together. I use it to bring my attention back to God when, as so often happens, my mind and heart wander. But most of all, I use it I use it as I try to make my way into that most precious of prayer forms, the prayer of silence.

The language of the Jesus prayer may be unfamiliar or jarring to many, especially those who are reacting to a guilt driven or guilt inducing form of Christianity. Yet we all know that we fall short of God’s intention for us. And many who use this prayer find the repetition of ‘sinner’ liberating and cleansing rather than morbid. And it is counterbalanced by the emphasis on ‘mercy’, which far from inducing a state of grovelling brings us within the ambit of that most precious quality of God, God’s hesed, God’s loving kindness, which surrounds and upholds us as, like the pilgrim, we journey on into God.

We can meet this pilgrim, and share his journey, in a small but lovely book about an anonymous Russian peasant’s journey through life with the Jesus Prayer. It’s called ‘The Way of a Pilgrim’. The peasant began by wanting to know what it might mean to obey St Paul’s instruction to pray without ceasing. So he listened to sermons and consulted many people, but without success. Finally he found a starets, a monk, who taught him the Jesus prayer. But first he gave him this advice from St Simeon the New Theologian:

Sit down alone and in silence, Lower your head, shut your eyes, breathe out gently and imagine yourself looking into your own heart. Carry your mind, that is your thoughts, from your head to your heart. As you breathe out, say ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me’. Say it moving your lips gently, or simply say it in your heart. Try to put all other thoughts aside. Be calm, be patient, and repeat the process very frequently.3

Having given the peasant this advice, the starets then told him how often to say the Jesus Prayer. And, wait for it: he said start by saying it 3,000 times a day; then advance to 6,000 times a day; as a third stage say it 12,000 times a day, and finally say it as often as you want to.

Under this guidance, says the peasant, I spent the whole summer in ceaseless oral prayer to Jesus Christ, and I felt absolute peace in my soul. During sleep I often dreamed that I was saying the Prayer. And during the day if I happened to meet anyone, all men without exception were as dear to me as if they had been my nearest relations … I thought of nothing whatever but my Prayer, my mind tended to listen to it, and my heart began of itself to feel at times a certain warmth and pleasure. 4

The prayer carried him through life, through the ups and downs, through illness, hunger and all the vicissitudes of ordinary living, till finally the peasant decided to become a pilgrim, and to go on a special pilgrimage to the tomb of St Innocent of Irkutsk in Siberia. On that journey he discovered that he had stopped saying the Jesus Prayer with his mouth and his mind, and that it seemed now to beat with his own heart beat. The use of a mantra had led into the mystical prayer of the heart.

Henri Nouwen, writing about the pilgrim’s journey of discovery, says:

The prayer of the heart gives the pilgrim an immense joy and unspeakable experience of God’s presence. Wherever he goes and with whomever he speaks from here on, he cannot resist speaking about God who dwells in him. Although he never tries to convert people or change their behaviour but always looks for silence and solitude, he nevertheless finds that the people he meets respond deeply to him and his words and rediscover God in their own lives. Thus, the pilgrim, who by his confession of sin and unceasing supplication for mercy, recognises his distance from God, finds himself travelling through the world in his most intimate company and inviting others to share in it. 5

David Runcorn tells us about his own experience of the prayer in ‘a dark chapel’:

Behind me a deep voice with a strong East European accent began to pray: ‘‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner’. Over and over he repeated it. After a while the prayer was taken up by a voice on the other side of the chapel, and then another. But the words remained the same. I began to be aware of the extraordinary power of this ancient prayer. It wove its seamless thread around and through the centre of my being, into the community and into all the world beyond. It was a prayer without beginning or end. It seemed to arise out of an abyss of human longing and hopefulness. Everything was included in that endless cry for mercy and faith in the name of Jesus.

‘Have mercy on me a sinner. And here, beyond all hope and deserving, Christ meets us. In the far reaches of our exile from ourselves, from each other and from God, [God] has searched us our and found us. [God] waits, humbly, in secret, nearer to us than we are to ourselves, at home in the depths of our infinite need. 6

I recall talking about this prayer to a colleague of mine when I was working for an international aid and development agency where a member of staff at our headquarters building held weekly lunchtime meditation sessions. My friend had just been to one, and during the course of the subsequent conversation we talked about breathing. This led me on to telling her about the Jesus Prayer and how it is linked with breathing, certainly in the way I use it (though doubtless St Simeon would have wanted me to say it all while breathing out – see below).

            Lord Jesus Christ – in

            Son of God – out

            Have mercy on me – in

            A sinner – out.

And she pointed out to me something so obvious, but so profound: the exhalation on ‘a sinner’ releases the sinner from the self.

Small wonder that for millions this prayer is a pearl of great price. I myself am not like the pilgrim, and am nowhere near a state that approaches mystical union with the divine Trinity; but like the pilgrim, I do know the Jesus prayer to be a very precious prayer, with great power to calm me and to get me back in touch with God. In those moments of doubt – which are many; in those times when I know I have turned my back on God – which are too often; in those periods when I seem to live in the real absence of God – which are not infrequent, and in times of solitude or even loneliness, one of the things that holds me in place is the Jesus Prayer.

‘In the expression ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me’,’ says Nouwen, ‘we find a powerful summary of all prayer. It directs itself to Jesus, the Son of God, who lived, died, and was raised for us; it declares him to be the Christ, the anointed one, the Messiah, the one we have been waiting for; it calls him our Lord, the Lord of our whole being: body, mind and spirit, thought, emotions and actions; and it professes our deepest relationship to him by a confession of our sinfulness and by a humble plea for his forgiveness, mercy, love and tenderness.’ 7

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

Try it.

 

  1. Mark 10. 46-48, NRSV
  2. Timothy (Kalistos) Ware, the Art of Prayer, compiled by Khariton, Faber and Faber. London, 1966, quoted in Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out, Collins, London, 1976, p129
  3. The Way of a Pilgrim, SPCK, London, 1954, p10
  4. The Way of a Pilgrim, p16
  5. Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out, Collins, London, 1976, p132
  6. David Runcorn, Choice, Desire and the Will of God, SPCK, London, 2003, p117-8
  7. Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out, Collins, London, 1976, p134
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